The Tennessee Volunteers football program has narrowly escaped a bowl ban after the NCAA Committee on Infractions found the university responsible for more than 200 individual violations, including 18 Level I infractions.
The investigation led to significant penalties, with former coach Jeremy Pruitt receiving a six-year show cause order, and the university facing probation, vacated wins, scholarship reductions, and hefty fines.
The NCAA announced that, in lieu of a bowl ban, the football program will be put on probation for five years and required to pay an $8 million fine.
Additionally, an independent compliance review will be conducted annually to ensure adherence to NCAA rules and regulations.
The penalties also include a legislated fine of $5,000 and an additional fine to recoup money earned during the period when the program was ineligible, particularly during the 2020 Gator Bowl.
The program must also vacate 11 wins from the 2019-20 seasons.
The fines handed out by the NCAA were notably larger than historical precedents. However, the NCAA defended the decision as necessary to avoid imposing bowl bans that would unfairly impact current players and staff who had no involvement in the violations.
“The panel encountered a challenging set of circumstances related to prescribing penalties in this case,” said the NCAA panel in a statement. “The panel urges the Infractions Process Committee and the membership to clearly define its philosophy regarding penalties – which extends beyond postseason bans – and memorialize that philosophy in an updated set of penalty guidelines.”
Reacting to the ruling, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel expressed his excitement that the program was spared from a bowl ban.
“You don’t know until today what it’s actually going to be,” Heupel told ESPN. “It’s hugely important that our players were protected, and the future players were protected as well. I’m really excited about the outcome.”
“It had nothing to do with our current staff, we weren’t there. People tried to use it against us in recruiting. Now it’s over and we have to opportunity to go compete for Championships.”
The violations involved two players who received direct payments from either Coach Pruitt or his wife. One player’s family received $7,600 for down payments on a car and rental property, along with $500 monthly for car payments on at least 25 occasions.
Another player’s mother received $3,000 to help pay for a medical procedure and an additional $300 for gas money. Both players participated in games while ineligible, including during the 2020 Gator Bowl, leading to the vacation of all games from that time period.
Another concerning violation centered around Tennessee’s scheme to circumvent unofficial visit rules during the recruitment of 29 players over two seasons.
The former recruiting director and primary recruiter worked together to book hotel rooms and provide cash payments for meals. Additionally, six athletes were allowed to visit campus during the COVID-19 dead period, a clear violation of NCAA rules.
The additional punishments include a loss of 28 scholarships over five years, with at least two scholarships lost each season.
The program previously self-imposed a reduction of 16 scholarships over the first two seasons. Pruitt received the most significant penalty, a six-year show cause, while the director of recruiting and assistant director of recruiting received five-year and ten-year show-causes, respectively. A former assistant coach also faces a two-year show cause.
During Pruitt’s six-year show-cause window, if he is hired for a new coaching job, he will be suspended for his entire first season. Although he was briefly considered for the Alabama defensive coordinator position, he was ultimately not selected.
Tennessee will also lose 36 official visits throughout the probation period, with at least four visits allowed per season. The Vols must select 10 regular-season games during which they cannot host official visits, including four SEC games.
Additionally, unofficial visits will be reduced for 40 weeks over the next five years, and the coaching staff will lose 28 weeks of recruiting communication and in-person evaluation.
The university’s “exemplary cooperation” and self-imposed penalties were cited by the NCAA as factors that prevented more severe penalties.
Pruitt, who was fired as Tennessee’s coach in January 2021 after three lackluster seasons, now faces a challenging road ahead with his six-year show cause. The university had fired him for cause and refused to pay his nearly $13 million buyout.
Pruitt’s lawyer had threatened to sue Tennessee over the buyout, but as of now, no lawsuit has been filed.
Despite the penalties, Tennessee is anxious to move the program forward under the guidance of Heupel.
Do you feel the punishment is too harsh? Not harsh enough? Or just right?